In my nonexistent spare time, I’m doing some work at an emergency shelter for teenagers.
I must be getting old.
For fourteen years, I worked on a college campus. In addition, I was a teenager (once upon a time) and I raised a teenager. I hadn’t expected to be surprised by these kids.
About every two hours or so, one of them surprises me. Far too frequently, one of them will surprise me to the point of speechlessness. I’m rarely at a loss for words.
In 13 days, I will celebrate the golden jubilee of my existence. I’m rather excited about turning 50 though I can’t quite articulate why. I am discovering the Big 5-0 is a time for reflection. While I don’t feel it’s possible that I’m 10+ years past the age I was convinced my parents were elderly and on the verge of nursing home care, I do know that I’ve got enough years behind me that every now and again true wisdom pops up in my brain – the brain that still feels 25 in the body that’s feeling every year of 50.
Working with teenagers at this junction encourages that reflection and results in some brief glimpses of insight.
I was the teenager from hell. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, I was intelligent and strangely responsible with my delinquent behavior. I had goals and I managed to get through a surprisingly good public school system with a solid 3.92 average. I worked 20-30 hours a week. In my (then) nonexistent spare time, I also partied like it was 1999.
The saving grace was that I loved and respected (kind of) my parents. I loved them and they loved me.
I told my son there were few things he could do that I hadn’t done; and, unlike my parents, I knew what to look for. While there were days I said to him, in stunned disbelief, “Who raised you?” we managed to get him through those years with minimal trauma.
At this point, I’m probably sounding like a hypocrite.
Those all too brief episodes of wisdom are bearing fruit.
They tried to tell me then and I try to tell them now that they have years and years in front of them, but youth is all too fleeting.
I would love to have the attitude and joy of being a small child again – the wonder at the world and the excitement of discovering it. I wouldn’t be a teenager again for nothing. Folks say they’d love to do it again knowing what they know now. Not me. They’d have to drag me kicking and screaming back to the time of Clearasil.
These kids I spend time with 25 hours a week are a mess. Most of them haven’t willfully done anything I didn’t do. The difference seems to be what has been done to them. By their own actions and by what’s been done to them, they’re growing up far too fast.
Some of them are there because of things they’ve done that landed them in the criminal justice system. Others are there because of things that were done to them that landed their guardians in the criminal justice system. Others are mentally ill. Some are there because their parents couldn’t control them and voluntarily turned them over to state custody.
College professors are consistently amazed at the irresponsible and dishonest behavior of their students. They’re further disgusted at the lack of basic skills these kids are coming out of high school with. Some of them put the blame squarely on the kids. Some on the public school system. Some on the parents. Some on all three. Rather than blaming, I’m more interested in figuring out what we’re doing differently with our kids that leads to this behavior and attitude. If we can figure that out, we can stop it before it starts.
In my other job, I work with folks committed to prevention of child maltreatment. The statistics and the research strongly show that it’s far more effective and less expensive to prevent the problems in the first place than to react to them later.
This job offers the flip side. What I see is that we’re dumping tons of money on this problem. Money that needs to be spent. But I wonder about the efficacy of it. It’s a temporary shelter so I don’t get to see what happens in the long term.
What strikes me about these kids in the shelter is how young they are and how old they think they are. The problem lies in that junction. They chafe, in ways I didn’t, at our attempts to control and change their behavior. So many of them have an attitude that this is all there is. Those that do have goals have ones that are shallow and center on the acquisition of stuff or the attainment of fame. They don’t want (or don’t they can) contribute something of real worth. Or they have no concept of what is worthy.
At their age, I felt like an adult. As an adult (and I use that term loosely), I know now that I didn’t feel like an adult – I felt like a teenager with the accompanying raging hormones and brain that had not yet lateralized. Hell, most of the time I still don’t feel like an adult.
It’s too easy to throw up our arms in despair and declare the problem too big to deal with. There’s an old story that makes the rounds of intervention folks – The Starfish Story. It was written by Loren Eisley. In short, a man on a beach sees miles of beached starfish and encounters another person picking them up and throwing them back into the ocean. The man points out to the other that he can’t possibly make a difference as there are hundreds of starfish and miles of beach. The starfish thrower says, as he tosses one back into the ocean, “”It made a difference for that one.”
My work at this group home is not onerous. Mostly, I sit and talk with the kids. Every now and again, I get the opportunity to say something that I hope is the equivalent of tossing a starfish back into the ocean.
What I need to learn, and this is probably true of life, is that while I will not get to see if my actions provoke positive results, the simple act of doing is still worthwhile.
I’ve spent this morning bemoaning my loss of free time. This job began as a means to alleviate some financial distress. It’s becoming something more. I’m learning something from these kids and I’m learning something about me. Time will, perhaps, illuminate more clearly what it is I’m learning. It’s possible that the starfish I’m saving is myself.